High quality wine has been produced on the southern slopes of the Buda Hills for centuries. The area was first planted with vines by the Romans, and, in the Middle Ages, first white and then red wine was made on these hillsides. The vineyards were abandoned in Turkish times, but after liberation from the Turks, didn’t have to wait long for renewal. This was due to the Serbian settlers, or as they were called at the time, the Rác. As a result of their work, the hillside was repopulated and they also brought a novelty with them, planting the characteristic black grape variety, Kadarka.
Kadarka grape variety was brought to Hungary by Serbian settlers
However, the huge devastation wrought by phylloxera in 1870-80 across Europe spared nothing and Buda red wine disappeared completely.
Walking on the slopes of Gellért Hill, it is difficult to imagine that vineyards once stood a century and a half ago where the villas now stand. However, some street names still remind you of this today: Vincellér (Vinedresser) Street or Szüret (Harvest) Street leaves you in no doubt that you are in a wine-producing region. This area is worth a visit just because it is home to the impressive garden of the Buda Arboretum. Who would have thought that you could walk among special trees and flowers in a nature reserve just a short distance from noisy, busy Móricz Zsigmond Circus?! There was once also a vineyard in this area since the Buda Vinedresser and Horticultural Training Institute operated where the arboretum stands today. The school building, which opened in 1860, has survived and is now the “E” building of Szent István University.
On and around Gellért Hill, only street name are reminiscent of the former flourishing viticulture
After relaxing in the lush greenery of the arboretum, you could do some climbing. Take the steps at the side of the area, which lead up to Kelenhegyi Road, where you can meet St Vincent. The statue of the patron saint was not yet here in the 1870s to protect the vines from phylloxera. It was erected in 2005 in honour of the former winemakers.
Arriving at Kelenhegyi Street, turn onto Rezeda Street, then onto Verejték Street and walk up the slope. You will reach the cross on Gellért Hill in a few minutes. Once you are out of breath, first admire the panorama and then observe the surrounding vegetation! The nearby almond trees are surprisingly related to the former wine culture. These trees like to grow where grapes also grow – it’s no coincidence that they feel so good here!
The cross on Gellért Hill with the Cave Church below
Walk down from the cross towards the quay, so you can then walk along the Danube bank towards Elizabeth Bridge to reach the residential district of the Rác! Until the 1930s, Tabán was a part of the city characterised by winding streets and small houses. In happier times before phylloxera, almost all its inhabitants were engaged in winemaking, and the lives of the locals revolved around the vineyards. Although the houses that once stood here have largely disappeared, the depths of the earth still hold special wine secrets. The natural caves of Várhegy, which borders the city, proved to be especially suitable for storing wine, so the locals turned them into cellars. One of the most interesting monuments – a huge marble barrel - is concealed under the house at 21 Attila Street. The maker of the 300-gallon barrel from 1826 was Károly Mayerffy, who wanted to revolutionise wine storage with this invention. He hoped his barrel would hold nectar for centuries to come. The barrel can still be found under the house today! The connection to wine can incidentally already been seen at the entrance. There are ladies holding a bunch of grapes and a glass guarding the house.
One of the Tabán’s oldest surviving buildings is a vinedresser’s house built at the end of the 18th century. It’s worth walking to 15 Czakó Street and taking a deep breath of the wine-scented historical air. Once upon a time, the harvest started here, and the must was also pressed here. If you’d like to avoid walking over the hill, then head towards Corvin Square, where you can find pleasant memories of wine drinking, more precisely of drinking wine spritzers. The Lajos fountain in front of the Buda Vigadó was donated to the city by a soda-water manufacturer, Lajos Millacher. Who would have thought that a soda producer could also be so thoughtful?!
The Danube embankment in the Tabán area, and Elisabeth Bridge in the background
As we are already talking about the consumption of wine, it’s worth heading to the other side of the river too, as Pest abounds in former wine restaurants.
At the beginning of the 20th century, for example, Ferenc Szikszay ran a restaurant at 16 Vámház Boulevard, whose garden was frequented by the residents of Pest, not only because of its good wines but also because of the enormous portions of roast meat it served. Wine, on the other hand, was not only served in secular places and gardens ringing out with wine-induced laughter, but it was also worth visiting the men of the cloth, more precisely the monks, for something special.
The Free Piarist Monastery opened a shop on the side of Sajtó Road in 1940, where the wines of the Balaton Highlands and Tokaj were sold from the barrel; however, it was also possible to buy them by the bottle.
The Pest side also holds hidden treasures of wine history
The former building of Ferenc Jálics at 26 Király Street harks back to even older times, to 1840. Jálics was himself involved in wine production but was actually much more successful as a merchant. He established a complete cellar system under the building, where he bottled Buda wines using steam engines, although his neighbours were not particularly happy about it. The size of the facility suggests it was possible to drive underground with carts and the vehicles could even turn around down there in a figure of eight. There was also a wine shop in the building, but Jálics worked on a much larger scale, also exporting excellent quality Hungarian wines to Western Europe.
The people of Budapest also had fond memories of these vine and wine times later. One example of this is the Harvest Procession relief designed for the wall of the Financial Institutions Centre at 5 Szabadság Square. Its designer, Ferenc Medgyessy, depicted abundance with a parade of dancing grape pickers. He originally envisioned nudes, but the tender committee preferred the ladies to be wearing traditional Hungarian costume, so Medgyessy was forced to reluctantly dress his figures.